Who among us can't say that, from time to time, we've anointed a stick with hallucinogenic ointment and ridden it like the subway? Who hasn't crushed up a couple of heads of hemlock and some belladonna berries and smothered the paste on our hairy places? Look me in the eye and tell me that you haven't greased your staff with deadly nightshade and given yourself a good time. Hey, we're only women.
I'm referring, of course, to the news that the image of the broomstick-riding witch—so beloved by the plastic Halloween aisles of Walmart and SuperValu—may actually stem from the 17th century habit of women soaking, smothering, or saturating a broom handle with hallucinogenic herbs before pushing it up their vagina to absorb the opiates through the old mucus membranes. Like a Texan teenager shoving a vodka-soused tampon up her vagina, so women of the post-medieval period would trip out on narcotic broomsticks and believe they were flying.
"The old ladies who practiced [herbal] medicine would have known all about magic mushrooms," Lucy Inglis, a historian and author of Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium, tells me over the phone. "People were growing opium in the UK... You've got an independent woman, who would have been very used to the reaction of their own body, whether that meant taking them vaginally or putting them under their armpits or whatever."
Of course, finding evidence of what those men and women accused of witchcraft actually got up to is like trying to work out what someone had for dinner by the kind of toilet roll they buy. When the consequences of being found a witch included being publicly burned to death, people were understandably a little hesitant to keep recipe books, instruction manuals, or sign their diaries.
As a result, much of what we understand about 17th century sorcery comes from the very people who were trying to punish it; people like King James VII of England and Ireland and his cheery witch-hating book, Daemonologie. It means that, even if this vaginal smear campaign is exactly that—a false act of fear and fevered imagination—it tells us something rather interesting about the men who were making it. Like the British conservative politician Norman Tebbit arguing that legalizing gay marriage would lead to a 'lesbian queen' and tempt him marry his own son, it says rather a lot more about the accuser than the accused.
"Men were accused of being witches as well," New College of the Humanities historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb reminds me before the premiere of her new TV show Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder. "In England, apart from during the Civil War when anarchy reigned, it was illegal to torture [people]. But in continental Europe and Scotland it was still legal to torture suspected witches. Therefore, many of these confessions are extracted through torture. There is a very complicated psychology about why people confess under torture—it's not just to make the pain stop but is also to do with identifying with what the interrogators is saying, feelings of guilt."
You read these confessions from older women who have dreamt that the devil comes to them as a yellow-haired young man.
Let's say, for instance, that a menopausal woman with scoliosis takes herbs to numb the pain of her arthritic fingers and alleviate some of her distemper. To stop her vomiting or having to chew on bitter leaves, she does so through the porous flesh in her vagina. She then finds herself thinking of a young lover, a beautiful stranger. "You read these confessions from older women who have dreamt that the devil comes to them as a yellow-haired young man," says Lipscomb. "They've probably just had a sexual fantasy of some sort but they believe it to be demonic." And so they confess—sealing their doom with an idle fancy.
If it's the choice of orifice that's making you blanche, remember that pessaries and suppositories have been used in folk medicine for years. As Lucy Inglis points out, one of the 17th century recipes for curing diarrhea was to put a hard boiled egg up your asshole to constipate yourself from the anus upwards. Medicine in the 17th century was that literal.
"Also, you have to bear in mind that at that time, perhaps up to 20 percent of people were physically disabled in some way with things like club feet [and] scoliosis," explains Inglis. "People were living with chronic pain and so were looking for ways to alleviate [that] all the time. When these women were at the height of their powers, everybody self-medicated. They were much more accustomed to their own bodies. Look at Samuel Pepys and Robert Hooke—they record the reaction their body had to everything."
To accuse intelligent, independent or pleasure-seeking women of immorality and corruption is as old as Eve herself, of course. To prey on the vulnerable to assert your own authority is just as ancient. To smear your own fears about female sexuality, sin, and insubordination across the women around you is just an extension of this two-pronged attack. "There is a real anxious masculinity during this period," says Liscomb. "Put this in the context of 16th and 17th century Europe—there's massive population increases, inflation, terrible famines, plagues, disease. It's an economic crisis. But there is also this sense that women might have a greater appetite than their men can satisfy, and that is very socially disruptive."
"There is very much a sense that women are the weaker vessel—that they are more sexually voracious than men, more susceptible to sexual sin and therefore more likely to lead men astray." Take women with basic medicinal knowledge; add domestic implements, hallucinogenic properties, and conscribed female existence; add a healthy dose of male anxiety, and you may very well make witches.
Of course, there is something wonderful about the image that theologian Giordano de Bergamo describes in his 15th-century manuscript Quaestio de Strigis (Inquiry into Witches): "On certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places." It is also hard not to feel great sorrow and respect for Alice Kyteler, the first woman to be condemned of witchcraft in Ireland, on the grounds that, according to the 1324 records of the investigation, "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin."
On certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.
The image of the broom-riding witch isn't specifically European. Aztec goddesses like Tlazolteotl were also depicted whizzing around on a broomstick (only hers appears to be on backwards). What is unique to the European broomstick myth is the men who disseminated it; men like Heinrich Kramer, the German Catholic clergyman who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, or King James, whose supernatural obsessions inspired the witches of Macbeth.
These men, angered and unsettled by the idea that a mere woman had the cunning to self-medicate and/or masturbate, flew immediately to murderous fury. They raged to snuff out the homefires that allowed women sovereignty over their own bodies. It was a question of female agency as much as alchemy. And, as is often the case, women paid the price of punishment.
But be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care, my witchy friends. Worry not who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. Because the night is ours. And we will have dominion yet across the hairy places.